Religious Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina present Numerous Problems and Religiously Motivated Crime

June 16, 2020 7:00 PM

 

 

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely.

The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one of two houses of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – predominantly SOC-member Serbs, predominantly Roman Catholic Croats, and predominantly Muslim Bosniaks, is stated in the US Department of State report.

The human rights ministry issued new regulations allowing reporting of religious freedom abuses directly to the ministry, which is then charged with working with relevant authorities to correct the abuses. Religious groups in areas where they were a local minority reported continued government discrimination regarding denial of permits for construction or repair of religious properties, and in education, employment, and provision of social services.

The Presidency again failed to approve an agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. In a report covering 2018, the Islamic Community (IC) said a school threatened to punish Muslim students if they did not make up classes missed during a religious holiday.

The same report said the military served Muslim soldiers pork over a two-month period. The Interreligious Council (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported authorities moved unacceptably slowly to investigate and prosecute religiously motivated crimes. In September Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly Dino Konakovic said in an interview he did not mind that a local elementary school continued to be named for a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler.

The IRC registered 10 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites and one case of verbal abuse against an Orthodox priest during the year and said the actual number of incidents was likely much higher. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 incidents of bias against Muslims, 10 against Christians, and two against Jews. The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing. The IRC continued to promote interfaith dialogue through conferences and projects with local governments.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized to government officials the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith activities.

In April the MHRR issued new instructions on the implementation of the law on religious freedom and position of churches and religious communities. In addition to provisions dealing with cooperation with churches and religious communities and autonomy for churches and religious communities, the instructions contain a measure that allows churches, religious communities, and groups or individuals the right to report abuses of their right to religious freedom directly to the MHRR. The MHRR is then charged with requesting respective state, entity, cantonal, or municipal authorities to undertake legally prescribed measures to prevent such violations of the law.

Officials publicly acknowledged the need to address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house but took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups.

According to IC officials, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency again blocked from its agenda for approval an agreement, reached in 2015, between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The IC officials stated the agreement remained blocked because the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency believed it would grant Muslims more rights than those granted to the Catholic and SOC communities.

In March the Commission for Freedom of Religion of the Riyasat – the highest religious and administrative body of the IC – issued its 2018 Reported Cases of Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion of Muslims in the country. The commission said it received six complaints, involving government and nongovernment entities. One was from the IC in Janja in the RS, saying Mesa Selimovic School officials violated the rights of approximately 500 Bosniak school children by threatening to sanction the students unless they made up school days they missed during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. In another case, the IC complained that schools in the country did not have prayer rooms.

Local NGOs continued to state that government authorities have not annulled the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. However, there were no instances of the HJPC applying these instructions during the year.

According to officials of religious groups in a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse to allocate land for the construction of a new Catholic church, saying the construction was not foreseen by urban plans drawn up in 1980. In June the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. This overturned Drvar Municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request. At year’s end, however, Drvar Municipality had declined to implement this decision, even though the deadline for implementation was June 5, 2019.

On October 1, the ECHR ruled that the government of BiH must remove a Serbian Orthodox church illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The court ruled the church construction in 1998 was illegal and ordered authorities to ensure its removal within three months, return the land to Orlovic, and pay 5,000 euros ($5,600) to Orlovic and 2,000 euros ($2,200) to her relatives in damages. The SOC constructed the church after Orlovic and her family were expelled from their home during the 1992-95 conflict. The ECHR ruled that authorities had failed to comply with previous decisions by the Commission for Real Property Claims of Displaced Persons and Refugees in 1999 and the Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons of the RS in 2001 ordering that Orlovic be granted full restitution of her land, the seizure of which resulted in a violation of the right to property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s ongoing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. In November Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to local NGOs such as Vasa Prava, the government again failed to implement legal provisions regarding the religious education of returnee children, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government officials seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a seventh year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.

Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions. A mother in Banja Luka told media that her daughter did not want to stop attending religious education classes because she did not want to feel excluded or different from the other students.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Leaders of religious minority communities and local NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, continued to say authorities again failed to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. Local NGOs reported government authorities discriminated against minority Serb Orthodox communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc, particularly by denying children access to education in their mother tongue (including using the Cyrillic alphabet) or to classes covering the history and literature of their national group and employment in public companies.

Religious leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. For example, following an incident on July 24 when a group of five persons threw stones at the Rijecanska Mosque in Zvornik, the IRC said the police report stated the material damage to the mosque was negligible and did not treat the case as a hate crime.

According to the IRC’s 2018 annual report published in May, police identified only 34 percent of perpetrators of religiously motivated crimes in 2018, compared with 45 percent in 2017. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.

In the report, the IRC said authorities moved unacceptably slowly in investigating and prosecuting crimes, taking an average of five to seven years to conclude cases reported as crimes. According to the IRC, of 219 incidents against religious sites or personnel it registered since 2010, police had identified suspects in 75 cases and prosecuted only 23. During the year, the IRC said authorities had identified only two suspects in the extant cases and initiated no new prosecutions. In addition, the IRC stated authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes. The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance.

The IC’s commission also said the armed forces failed to provide Muslim members with halal food and served them dried processed meals containing pork during a two-month period in 2018. The commission’s report said the Sarajevo Veterinary Institute confirmed the failure to provide halal food.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both school and street retained the Busuladzic name. On September 16, Dino Konakovic, Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, said in an interview that he did not mind that the Dobrosevici School continued to be named for Busuladzic.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See did not meet during the year and had not met since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest and also because the government had still not formed a new Council of Ministers after the October 2018 general elections. According to the Catholic Church, the government had not implemented earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays.

The agreement between the government and the SOC also remained unimplemented; neither the SOC nor the government had nominated members to the implementing commission by year’s end.

International and local NGOs, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Photo: Ivica Galovic/PIXSELL

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